Adventure in snow and ice.
20.05.2013 - 24.05.2013 0 °C
The next morning we had to get up very early to make our flight. We knew when we'd booked our flight down to El Calafate, in the South of Patagonia, that we were flying with the old military airline because it was a fraction of the price of the other airlines. We were not however ready for the little plane, still bearing the military insignia, that greeted us at the airport. We were slightly confused when the announcer announced that the flight would be flying to four different destinations, but presumed they were just calling several flights at the same time. They weren't! It turned out that we were about to hop our way done the east coast of Argentina in three hops, much like a bus service. Each hop took about an hour, and in every hop we were served different food, first croissants, then coconut jam tart and then very dry rice with ham and mayo. At each stop we had to wait about half an hour, for the people to get on and off, and for the little tractor to drive out to pick up the bags and carry them the 20 metres or so back to the little airport buildings. As we neared El Calafate, the scenery began to change quite dramatically. From the air we could see meandering glacial rivers, lots of lakes, snow covered mountains and huge flat plains. It looked like a different world! The town of El Calafate itelf, is quite a pretty little town sitting at the edge of Lago Argentina, the largest lake in Argentina. It seems to have grown primarily because of tourism, with people coming from all over the world to sea the glaciers that slide their way down the nearby valleys into the lake. The hostel we were staying in was lovely, it resembled a ski chalet inside, with lots of wood, had heated floors and incredibly helpful staff.
The next morning was another early start because we'd booked onto a boat trip to the glaciers. A bus picked us up from our hostel just after 8, but strangely was still dark. It turned out that the sun didnt rise until about half 9, because El Calafate is so far south but also so far west in its time zone (it is in the same time zone as Rio which as you can see from our map is about 3000km further east!). We boarded a large catamaran and set off towards the glaciers. The water was pretty choppy and incredibly deeps (in places it was over 900m deep!), but the view of the sunrise from the boat was amazing. The contrast between the pink clouds, the mountains and the milky turquoise colour of the water (a result of all the glacial sediment), was so striking! The first glacier we headed for was the Upsalla glacier. As we turned into the main canal coming from the glacier we were greet by a sea of icebergs. Some of them were absolutely enormous. We sailed up the canal but our path was eventually blocked by the icebergs so we were unable to get really close to the glaciar . The icebergs were still amazing though! Our next stop was the Spegazinni glacier. Unlike the upsala glacier there were no icebergs here because the glacier could reach the bottom of the canal (at upsala the canal is much deeper and the glacier cannot touch the bottom, which means that the water underneath the glacier speeds up the melting process, which results in huge icebergs breaking off). The glacier came down a very steep slope before it reached the water and the sudden flattening out upon reaching the water meant the ice has backed up into a huge wall about 100m tall. It was really imposing! Our final stop of the tour was the most famous glacier named after the Argentinian scientist, perito merino. We pulled up about 400m from the northern ice walls and slowly sailed up and down the walls. We were lucky enough to see a large block of ice break off and fall into the water. The splash it and steam it made was enormous and the it made quite a noise. As we sailed back towards the port we shared a bottle of champagne complete with glacier ice. All in all it was an amazing day!
The following day we booked to go "minitrekking" on the perito Moreno glacier. We were taken by boat to the shore closest to the glacier. We had a quick lunch in a wood cabin with a big warm fire and then walked down to the glacier. As we arrived next to the glacier we were fitted with crampons, before we were taken onto the glacier. Our guide was brilliant, explaining all sorts of things about the glaciers, in English before Spanish which made a nice change! As we hiked up further on to the glacier we saw sink holes, crevasses and pools of water. It was an incredibly surreal experience, but so worth it! Before we headed back to the boat we were all given scotch with glacier ice, it didn't taste as nice as the champagne the day before but was still pretty cool. We also made friends with a newly married American couple who we also ended up sitting next to on one of our overnight buses a week later!
That night we received an email from our airline telling us that our flight north had been cancelled and that we were now flying 7 hours later to a different town. This changed our plans because it meant we were now going to have two more full days in El Calafate rather than one.
So, in a bit of a change of plan, the following morning we caught the three hour bus to El Chalten, a small mountaineering town to the north, built in the shadow of the most dramatic mountain range we have ever seen. It had snowed overnight and as we travelled north on the bus, the snow gradually got deeper and deeper until it was about 2 feet deep when we arrived in El Chalten. Only a few of the trails were open because of the heavy snow but the whole area was stunning. There are two main peaks in the area - the Cerro Fitz Roy at 3400m and the Cerro Torre, a mile-high spike of vertical and overhanging granite called Cerro Torre; which was once (though no longer) thought to be the world's hardest mountain to climb.
We set off to climb a couple of the open trails, the first of which was nicely bashed out through the snow and took us to a nice viewpoint of the town and the mountains behind it. We then headed out on the second trail but found it completely untouched with thigh deep snow! After a bit of deliberation we decided to make our own path and bashed our own path to the summit. It took about an hour but the view from the top of a nearby lake and looking the other way, of the town and mountains was truly spectacular!
We spent our last day horseriding. We were picked up from the hostel by our gaucho and taken to his stables. There we were introduced to our horses, before setting off across the plains towards lago Argentina with just the gaucho and his pack of dogs for company. I was on a big brown horse called Echo and Anna was on a smaller brown and white horse called Gringo. After a couple of hours riding we stopped for lunch next to the lake. One of the horses kept trying to join the picnic. After lunch we rode back along the snowy beach. The dogs caught two rabbits on the way home, which the gaucho skinned when he got back to the stables. It was a brilliant day, but we were both walking rather gingerly for the following days!
It was then back to the airport for our fun flying hop back up argentina.